Why a Classic Portuguese Novel Should Be on Your To-Read List
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It’s a book that has stood the test of time.
By Sarah Ládípọ̀ Manyika
We’re starting a new feature at OZY Books: the building of a global bookshelf. Every other month, our book section editor will pick a selection we think you might enjoy. It might be one you’ve never heard of, or perhaps about a place you’ve never visited. We start with a classic: Blindness, by José Saramago, has stood the test of time. There’s something for everyone — plot, philosophy, allegory, passion, despair and triumph.
So what’s the story?
A plague of blindness descends on an unnamed city. Within hours, internment camps are erected to keep the blind and contaminated away from the rest of the population. Chaos ensues both inside and outside the camps as more people turn blind. Only one person doesn’t go blind, and she is both witness to the atrocities and guide to her small group of friends. Her words become the group’s maxim: “If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like animals.” This is a story about power, greed and courage and how individuals and governments respond to crisis. It is, at its core, about what makes us human.
Who wrote it?
Saramago, the grandson of pig farmers, was born in 1922 into a peasant family. A curious fact about his birth: The village clerk, possibly drunk when filling out the birth certificate, wrote “Saramago” instead of the true family name, de Sousa. Saramago means “wild radish” in Portuguese, which in retrospect seems apt for someone who came from a poor peasant background, published his first book only in his fifties and then went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Perhaps the wild radish also says something about the sharpness of Saramago’s character — he was known as a prickly personality, a staunch atheist and a lifelong member of the Portuguese Communist party.
What’s not to like?
First, some readers of Blindness claim the book is insensitive to blind people, portraying them as a metaphor for moral depravity. Others (including the author when he was alive) refute this critique, saying that it’s about a population that fears the blindness and what happens in the chaos that ensues. There’s also a problem of punctuation or, rather, the lack thereof in the book. Punctuation to Saramago was like traffic signs: “Too much of it distracted you from the road on which you traveled.” To which some critics have wondered, Sure, but too little and you wind up hopelessly lost.
The chaotic and postapocalyptic world that is currently being portrayed in many books and TV series is what Saramago got right many years earlier.
The world may not have witnessed a plague of blindness, but illnesses such as Ebola and Zika have triggered panic reactions akin to those described in Blindness. The chaotic and postapocalyptic world that is currently being portrayed in many books and TV series is what Saramago got right many years earlier. Blindness speaks to our world today, in which societies realign themselves and rules are dramatically changing. And the blindness referred to in this novel is not just a physical one. As one of the characters remarks: “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.” Issues pertaining to the abuse of power, whether in the political realm or otherwise, are as pertinent today as they always have been. Whether in Los Angeles or Lagos, we still turn a blind eye to predatory and misogynistic behavior; we still see (and don’t see) the use of sexual assault and rape as weapons of war; and we still pretend not to see, all around us, the glaring injustices that are hiding in plain sight. This is a book that tackles tough subjects and gives us complicated and flawed characters that defy simplistic right and wrong, bad and good, judgments.
“Blind. The apprentice thought, ‘We are blind,’ and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow creatures.”
—José Saramago in his Nobel Lecture, 1998
Other books you might like if you enjoyed Blindness:
- The Plague by Albert Camus
- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah
- The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- 1984 by George Orwell
- The Blind Kingdom by Véronique Tadjo
What others say about the book
“ It might sound cute to call Blindness one of the world’s most clear-eyed books, but its merciless portrayal of our human society, the panic and selfishness that ebbs, occasionally and movingly, when our best selves are put forward, is a vision that has stayed with me since that curiously harrowing and harrowingly curious first scene. This book, in that opening scene and each subsequent one, stops traffic, even as the sentences keep moving, keep searching, for that rare and profoundly comforting higher ground.” —Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket, is the author of, most recently, All The Dirty Parts and writes a regular column for The Believer exploring the Nobel Prize in literature.
“Being visually impaired I experience how life is shaped by my limitations. In my reality there is a fissure between looking, seeing and then knowing. I seldom look at a thing, see it unambiguously and know what it is. Saramago’s poetic voyage grapples with the challenges of living in this chasm of blindness. And blindness can be of the eye, heart or soul. In exposing how a horrendous plague unravels our tenuous civility he provides disconcerting and engaging insights into ‘true’ blindness.” —Max Perr is a formerly sighted business executive.
“Saramango’s Blindness is a journey into the depths of human darkness, eerily similar to the reign of Portugal’s dictator, Salazar. Showing how easily human societies tear each other apart at the first sign of weakness. How terror quickly spreads by justifying its use. In the novel the prisoners’ treatment is reminiscent of the same endured by many political dissidents, who were also stripped of human dignity. One glaring example was Cape Verde’s Tarrafal modeled after Nazi concentration camps, which undoubtedly inspired Saramago’s writing.” —Yovanka Paquete Perdigao is the writer and founder of the Lusophone literary magazine Terra Crioula.
“The first time I read Blindness, it absolutely blew me away — the voice of it, the euphoric swirling structure, the collision of linguistic beauty and thematic horror, and also his seamless use of surreal elements to explore extremely real, gritty, urgent social themes. As a modern classic, it’s been a potent source of inspiration for writers throughout the globe, including myself.” —Carolina De Robertis teaches Saramago’s work at San Francisco State University. She is an internationally bestselling, award-winning novelist and editor of Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times.
“To encounter a writing about ‘blindness’ done with such brilliant poetic insight is nothing short of miraculous. Saramago’s work is known for its flair for the lives of ordinary people, which he infuses with ironic wisdom. The great quality of Blindness is how it imagines a common destiny for different people, a good parable for these times.” —Akin Adesokan’s books include Roots in the Sky and Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics.
“As Saramago said, ‘With this book, I intend to question myself and my readers about our rationality; if we are, in fact, rational.’ Reading this novel provides an unsettling answer. The novel also presents a startling contrast to the poetic expression of Saramago’s memory in Lisbon. On the street outside the foundation that bears his name, you’ll find a tree from Saramago’s hometown, his ashes scattered beneath. People regularly stop to leave flowers and consider a plaque that reads, ‘But it did not ascend to the stars, for it belonged to the earth.’ This is the last line from the novel the Portuguese regularly cite as their favorite: Baltasar and Blimunda.” —Scott Laughlin, co-founder and associate director of DISQUIET: The Dzanc Books Literary Program in Lisbon.